Research Guide – Collaborating on Writing Manuscripts

Publishing a manuscript is a complex process needing a lot of work and much input from collaborators. If this not handled and organised well this hard but manageable task can become a quagmire of floundering conflict and confusion. To avoid this, there are important points to consider.

Journal publications are the main avenue for communicating scientific evidence and ideas, and they demonstrate the authors’ contributions to the scientific corpus. That is why publication metrics are used as productivity indicators in grants, awards and job interviews, so authorship on paper is a big issue. Collaboration is essential for manuscripts to see the light of day (evidenced by the extreme rarity of single author research publications) so this must be managed well.

First stage of manuscript development: shaping the idea and getting the data

When starting out with an idea for a manuscript, working with collaborators and colleagues is useful to review and discuss the literature, as well as assess and extend any data. Manuscript co-authors become evident from this process, as it is crucial to properly acknowledge contributions to the paper. It is then necessary to decide who should be first (or joint first) authors and senior authors.

Authorship status

First authors are the main drivers of the project and manuscript writing, while last authors are those with senior status overseeing the project. Clarity about each author status and contribution is important. Sometimes at a later stage the contribution one author may increase to the point they can be justified to be first authors, but it is hard to go back on undertakings to the original first author, so this must be handled sensitively; joint first (or joint senior) authorship can be a good solution.

Second stage of manuscript development: presenting the work and preparing figures

Data analyses need to be assembled in figures and text to present at oral and poster presentations. These are great for practicing figure construction and writing, to test out the narrative structure and to get critical feedback. Indeed, the best feedback may well be from collaborators who can now see the project taking form, so a copy of any poster or slides should be sent to all of them beforehand with enough time to provide comment. It is also a courtesy, as it demonstrates they are involved and that their input is appreciated. Bear in mind that authorship lists on conference presentations will create expectations for author inclusions and author list order in the related manuscript.

Drafting a manuscript

It is usual that text and figures are worked on by one or two authors with critical reading by other authors. Version control is crucial, as without it there is a confusion of parallel draft alterations, plus the nasty risk of contributors amending out-of-date drafts, which will deeply annoy them. For early drafts, e-mailing (MS Word) copies of drafts for co-authors to make tracked changes is good, but there are also good online options such Google Docs or Overleaf.com that allow simultaneous editing. It is best not to perform major surgery on a draft while others are working on it, so this should be managed carefully. Among around manuscript development issues, a thorny one can be deciding which points should be put in the Introduction and which in the Discussion section.

Authorship etiquette in manuscript writing

It should go without saying that the main manuscript author should treat other co-authors with proper consideration. This includes clarity over their roles, and treating their edits and amendments seriously. Requests for input from other authors should give them time to respond before deadlines; an unexpected request sent late on Friday for a Monday morning deadline is not respectful. It is also important to actively acknowledge the contributions of particular authors that have put in effort.

It is nearly always difficult for inexperienced writers to accept criticism without being defensive. After working long and hard the new writer gets emotionally attached to their creation. Experienced writers know a near-Buddhist lack of attachment is best, as you may need to sacrifice your favourites for the greater good. There is also the Dunning-Kruger Effect which, paraphrased for the context, is that inexperienced writers have yet to learn enough about writing to understand just how awful their scientific prose really is. A trusted mentor, or a senior colleague whose irate opinions cannot be ignored are usually the only fix for this. As a major point of etiquette, do not plagiarise others. It is always unacceptable, easily detectable and, hence, always embarrassing. However, it may be reasonable take a short piece of text by a good writer to recast later in your own words.

With manuscript done, always get permission from all authors before journal submission; failing to do this really is a cardinal sin. Usually a first or last author is designated ‘Corresponding Author’ and performs journal contact tasks; note in some circles, being corresponding author carries extra status.

Research ethics and collaborators

This is a huge subject, summarised thus: be honest, be open, be scrupulous and always do things in good faith. Do not cut corners on this. Make sure data and data analysis is correct and get it checked by others. If you suspect the ethics of a co-author or data supplied by them, seek mentor advice before the problem snowballs. If something is wrong do not delay to deal with it. Make certain of ethics committee approval for the work – ethics approval numbers will be needed for journal submission.

Third stage of manuscript preparation: finalising the manuscript

Once structure, narrative and data is done at last, finalising it all in a publishable draft can be surprisingly long-winded. Almost everyone (even those most experienced) underestimate this, often hugely. This is due to the need to inspect the work from every angle, and it is common to find major data issues only with writing underway, e.g., a vital control group not included, or a minor section that has become major starts to wilt under the increased scrutiny. Get co-authors to help with this process, as extra brainpower is needed to spot problems before peer-reviewers do.

Do not submit a manuscript without appropriate input from all others thinking that the journal reviewer will provide the appropriate suggestions; that approach never ends well. Read, read and read again the manuscript and do not be afraid to make changes even in the underlying principle to make the writing clear and concise. Be brave and delete words or paragraphs that do not clearly add value.

Fourth stage of manuscript preparation: the fiddly bits at the end

So many fine details and minor features (including formatting for journals) need to be finalised for journal submission that it inevitably takes far more time than seems reasonable. It is not hard but here, alas, the first author is usually on his or her own.

The peer review process

This is not an easy process to navigate, so co-author help is needed at all stages, and it is essential get their approval before a response to peer review is submitted. Take peer review criticism well and courteously. Provide any further data that is requested or provide good reasons why not, for example, if it would give uninterpretable results or is outside the manuscript scope. This is a delicate craft requiring experience and good advice. It is generally understood that a journal editor will accept the manuscript if the authors properly respond to the points raised by the reviewers. A second review by the same reviewers is needed to confirm this, and it is a convention to help preserve everyone’s sanity that the second (i.e., last) review will not raise substantive issues the first did not, as it allows no possibility for response. This is not always true of the highest journals, however, who do as they see fit, because they can.

Money

Do not forget most journals charge publication fees, so make sure the appropriate funds are secured before submission.

Author:  Dr Julian Quinn

Version: 1.2 (Sept 2020)

Thanks to: Professor Thomas Hugh and Dr Richard Piper for reviewing and critiquing this article.     

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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